When is Criticism an Effective Tool?

Short answer?


Criticizing isn’t a tool.  It’s not something useful that inspires others to be better.  It doesn’t work.  It is simply a reaction.  In his well known book, How to Win Friends and Influence people, Dale Carnegie says,

“Criticism is futile because it puts a person on the defensive and usually makes them strive to justify themselves.  Criticism is dangerous because it wounds a person’s precious pride, hurts their sense of importance and arouses resentment.”

People don’t generally put blame on themselves.  Everyone is doing the best that they can, or at least think they are doing the best they can.  Has a nagging wife ever gotten real change from her husband?  The person that changes for the better is one that is praised when he does something right.  The changes that are lasting and real happen when we are inspired to become better.

There is a lot to say about positive thought.  Proverbs tell us that “For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he.” For example, I cook dinner 6 days of the week.  My husband cooks a delicious beef stew.  He started cooking it occasionally on Sunday, and I told him repeatedly how good it was.  I told him how much it meant to me that he cooked dinner on Sundays.  I bragged to my friends that my husband took care of dinner every Sunday.  I haven’t had to cook on Sunday in years.  It’s great.  Say I took a different approach.  I constantly complained about cooking a meal every day.  When he stepped in to help, I criticized that it could use more vegetables, or the meat wasn’t well-done enough.  Do you think he would be cooking very often?  He would assume I did not like his cooking, and leave it to me.

I’ve used my marriage as an example, but this is a hugely important skill to have mastered if you are in a leadership position.  Good leaders inspire, uplift, compliment, and look for the positive in the people they are leading.  Bad leaders criticize, belittle, and lift themselves higher.

An interesting phenomenon that I have noticed are the kind of people who criticize me.  Obviously, I am far from perfect, and I have a lot about myself that I would like to improve.  However, the leaders that I look up to have never criticized me.  I have a great friend that I worked under for a church assignment for about a year.  I messed up plenty, but I knew that I had messed up, and she knew it too.  She knew that it wasn’t useful to either of us to scold.  She would just say something like, “It happens to all of us,” or “Don’t worry about it.  We figured it out.”  These statements would be accompanied with a genuine smile, and relaxed nature.  I improved, and became better at my assignment by watching her example, not from her telling me what I had done wrong.

The people that have criticized me the most in my life were those that were struggling in their own life.  I had a really messy house while was finishing school.  I was pregnant with my second child, and going to school full time for my bachelors degree.  My house was a disaster.  When my sister-in-law’s boyfriend sneered at my mess, it definitely didn’t inspire me to keep my house cleaner.  It just made me not want him to come over any more.

If you are sitting here with bated breath, ready to debate me about circumstances, I will say that there may be circumstances where constructive criticism is necessary.  However, I would not call it criticism in those instances.  I would call it correction.  If you are in the right position to say something, like a parent or a boss, you need to think long and hard if the criticism/correction is necessary.  If an employee genuinely doesn’t know they did something wrong, you could gently correct them.  Another word for this would be teaching.

Teachers are leaders.  Leaders are teachers.  If you strive to be a good leader, you must first strive to be a good teacher.  Good teachers know how to teach without criticism.  Good teachers make corrections when necessary, but positive reinforcement is always a better teacher than negativity.

If we would all hold off on criticizing others, our relationships in all areas would improve.  Not only would relationships improve, but the performance of each person involved would improve as well.  I call that a win-win situation.


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